Focus on Leadership: Scott Sandlin is a man of many missions - July 2020
Interview by Kemp Harr
After graduating from the University of Tennessee, Scott Sandlin joined Shaw Industries as a sales management trainee. In the ensuing 34 years, he has served in a variety of roles, and early this year was named the leader of the company’s residential business, responsible for marketing, product development and sales operations for the division, which includes Anderson Tuftex, Coretec, Philadelphia Commercial and Shaw Floors.
In addition to his professional achievements, last year Sandlin became the first St. Jude Hero to finish the 140.6-mile Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii. Sandlin lives in Chattanooga with his wife, Cara. The couple has two grown kids.
Q: How did you first get connected with Shaw Industries? Did that fit your major at UT?
A: I majored in marketing at the University of Tennessee. I interviewed with Shaw on campus in the spring of 1986 with one of the finest gentleman this great earth has ever known, Elbert Shaw. He believed in me and became an important influence on me and my family. He hired many of the leaders that I work with today. I had just turned 22, which was pretty normal for graduates back then. I needed the money and was ready to go to work.
Q: I’ve been told that throughout your career at Shaw, you’ve tried to create fun competition in the workplace. Tell me about that.
A: I try to promote healthy competition among our Shaw teammates. If you make that fun, everyone tends to engage better. We all spend way too much time at this for it not to be fun. Fun should not be a negative word in business, but you have to win for it to be fun. One of the best contests we had was our Contract King award, and Julius Shaw was the perennial winner.
Q: What are a few of your key accomplishments at Shaw?
A: We built a great mainstreet commercial business in the early ’90s, which still has solid support from our customers today. The other big business initiative that has been rewarding is the way we have built our hard surface business. Our leadership had a growth mindset around both of these areas, we put together great teams and then listened to our customers. However, the biggest accomplishment of my career has to be the friendships and the trusting relationships I have built with customers, suppliers and our Shaw associates. My best friends are in this business, and many would do anything for me, as I would for them.
Q: Who is Shaw’s customer?
A: Traditionally, we say that the customer is the person who sends us the check. While this is true, we have to be more open than this to be the most valued supplier in the business. Also, it becomes blurry in a digital world. Our customer is our dealer, the builder subcontractor, the designer, the builder, the property management company, the home center, the manufactured housing supplier, etc. Ultimately, people are our customers, and we put people at the center of everything that we do at Shaw. As a leading manufacturer and provider of flooring products, we have to realize that our role is to form a partnership at every step in our supply chain to get a quality product to the end user.
Q: Shaw sells flooring through multiple channels, and some are going to do better than others. How do you decide which horse to ride?
A: We have the talent, the products, the systems and the operational excellence to pursue all key residential channels. We really try to make sure we are servicing our customers in each through the peaks and valleys. For example, during the height of the COVID shutdown, our home center customers were very busy, and our team worked around the clock to ensure we were their best flooring supplier. Unfortunately, many of our other specialty retailers were forced to shut down, and we worked through this with them. We have always been known to be a key supplier to the builder community, and this is really core to who we are, as well.
Q: There are signs the DIY market is strengthening, and this could signal a long-term trend. How does Shaw plan to react to this trend?
A: We are set up well for the DIY business. The fastest-growing flooring category in DIY is the LVT click business. Our Coretec and Floorté brands are positioned with the style, design and breadth to satisfy the demand. However, we still have to figure out what is next. We must be innovative here.
Q: Over the last several years, Shaw has shifted its focus away from some flooring categories and doubled down in others. Help us understand these decisions.
A: We believed that resilient was quickly becoming a product of choice for the consumer. We certainly “doubled down” and tried to become the supplier that our customers counted on in resilient. It is crazy to think about, but in just ten years, we have gone from not being in resilient to the largest in the business. We were on a very strong trajectory, and then the US Floors acquisition was a key inflection point. It fits our growth mindset, while laminate really doesn’t. We would love to be more aggressive with rugs in the future.
Q: Why have you risen to the top as a leader?
A: I would simply say I have a key role on a great team. Personally, I worked hard to get better. When you are at one organization for 34 years, you develop a certain personality. We all have some good traits, and then there are those that we need to improve. I have tried to listen and really improve so that I can help this enterprise succeed. It is about being the best leader for the enterprise versus being the best leader for yourself. Once you make that important transition, you can lead more effectively.
Q: Who would you consider to be your mentors, and what did they teach you?
A: My parents for sure. Both worked hard and expected only what they earned. My dad was more career-focused, and my mom was more community-focused. I became a blend of them with one eye on business and the other on helping our communities. I am so fortunate for my parents!
Also, from my first day at Shaw, I have been blessed with great, caring bosses and mentors. And many customers have taught me so much. My wife of 32 years, Cara, has a great soul and has been a blessing for me throughout my career.
Probably the common thread from all of these is that they live with a growth mindset and always try to get better. Never be satisfied because you can always do more for others. There comes some pressure with this mindset but so be it.
Q: As with any corporate career, there have been times when you were passed over for a promotion. How did you handle it?
A: Many times! I remember a time in the late ’90s when Randy Merritt, one of my long-term mentors, called me over to his office for what I thought was going to be a promotion, and he was simply advising me that I had a new boss because I wasn’t ready for the job. I was upset and told him I was going to leave. He advised me to calm down and think through it. I didn’t handle it well, but I learned. Two weeks later, I was fine. You cannot stay in a pity puddle when the breaks go against you. Too often I see folks allowing a setback to derail them. Stay faithful, get better, learn and grow with what you might consider a setback because it is ultimately not about you, it is about the Shaw enterprise.
I appreciate Tim [Baucom], Vance [Bell] and our leadership for having confidence in me to lead our residential business. They have challenged me to be the best leader I can be. Our success is important to our customers, our Shaw associates and our communities. I am so thankful and fortunate for this opportunity and look forward to many years ahead.
Q: What advice do you have for people who are just starting their professional career?
A: Put your heart and soul into it. Never ask for a raise; that one might get some attention, but I believe it. Allow your commitment, talent and passion to speak for themselves. Have a greater commitment to the organization than it does to you. Then, if it is a great organization like Shaw, the formula works. Did I mention never ask for a raise? Just earn it.
Q: What are the biggest challenges you face for meeting your goals, both professionally and personally?
A: Focus. I lose focus because often I try to take on too many things. I have worked hard on this, but you have to stay focused on the priorities. In order to do this, you have to understand the priorities. You have to become strategic as you grow and focus on the important and not the urgent. If you have more than three to five key initiatives on your list then your will either not get them done, or you will do them all in an average manner. Life is not about being average.
Q: What is your philosophy as a parent?
A: I traveled so much early in my career that I treasured the days I was home and got to take my kids to school or to the bus. I said the same thing every time when they were sliding out of the car, “I love you; now go make a difference.” I also really tried to let them know they can learn from folks doing things right, but they could also learn from folks doing things wrong. Every time I did something stupid, I would let them know so they could learn from that, as well. It would kind of let me off the hook. Lastly, I have learned from them so much more than they have learned from me. Both have helped me be stronger in my faith; that’s kind of cool if you think about it.
Q: How do you balance your time to get everything done and focus in the right areas?
A: I stay after the priorities, but most importantly, I have a talented team of leaders with a clarity of mission. It’s important to delegate and empower your team, to trust them, to reward them. You cannot do it all or you will be an individual contributor versus a leader. That’s okay, but that is not the path I chose.
Q: What drove you to want to become an Ironman? What were the biggest obstacles to overcome?
A: It is amazing what you can accomplish on behalf of someone special. When my friend’s daughter Christian Bryant passed away of acute lymphoblastic leukemia during her senior year of high school, it had a huge impact on me. It was time for me to do something more significant for others. That turned into a passion for St. Jude and its amazing work. It all started with a one-mile run, which I struggled to finish, then a 5K fundraiser in Christian’s honor, a marathon and then the Ironman.
It is an event that I have found allows me to stay active and intense, yet it is an unbelievable platform for fundraising. It is 99% mental, and it keeps you sharp. You cannot lose focus, or you will not finish-and you could get hurt. I would challenge everyone to think about someone or some special cause and then get after it. I don’t care if it is a charity walk; get after it and make a difference. Everyone reading this can complete any challenge they take on.
Probably the thing I have learned with my growing relationship with St. Jude and my buddies recovering from pediatric cancer, like my 11 year-old supporter and St. Jude patient Kiara, is that you can get it done with their support. When she and her dad were waiting on me with a hug at the finish line in Kona, it was a life-changer.
Q: Where is your happy place?
A: Mile 542 on the beautiful Tennessee River. It is a quite remarkable watershed nestled between the Cumberland Plateau and the Smoky Mountains. You and I share the passion for this beautiful body of water and the fine folks that live on and around it. It is a simple way of life. I love it when I am there for some quiet thinking time but enjoy it even more with family and friends.
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